Thursday, December 13, 2018

PLUS ÇA CHANGE

"Everton fans will boo Raheem Sterling on Saturday. Because he played for Liverpool. And dives a lot. And that goal where the ball had gone about a mile out of play. And his "jazz hands' run. But not because of the colour of his skin…." -NSNO Everton website

And here we are then, in the cold windswept streets of Theresa May's failed state.

A land where a pompous bigot like Jacob Rees Mogg can don a top hat and tails, spout bare-faced lies with a plummy lilt and be viewed instantly as a credible future leader of the country.

A land of poets and inventors, scientists, explorers and philosophers, of statesmen and biologists, pharmacists and fantasists, where the Industrial Age began and the Ice Age arrives. The land that invented computers, iron bridges, television, threshing machines, the telephone, the steam engine, bicycle pedals and Marmite.

And Association Football.

Chips and gravy too. Porridge oats. A meal to start the day with a fried egg, sausages and bacon involved. We carry on expressing ourselves in ways that open eyes and minds. Cats eyes, cash machines and DNA profiling. The list goes on.

And now, with Brexit and the shambolic political class that rule over us, we have invented new ways for the world to look at us.

Where once they looked for advice and for an example, they now titter behind polite handkerchiefs, point and shake their heads. What has happened to old Albion?


****

It is 1983.

From a distinctly rough vantage point on the windswept terraces at Stamford Bridge's delipidated away end - a low, sweeping curve of uncovered steps that are crumbling, uncovered and bordered by barbed wire topped security fences - it is difficult to make out.

The home fans are making their usual din. It fells uneasy and edgy. Then it happens again. It is clear that there are things being hurled towards the area of rough cinder between the back of the goal Alex Williams is defending in the name of Manchester City and Chelsea's finest gathered on the Shed End. Improbably, the airborne objects would seem to be bananas….

****

Watching football in the eighties was like that. Raw, dangerous, unreconstructed. Political correctness was far from being erected as a way of life in Great Britain and a loud, bawdy thugs' charter ruled the roost in English football grounds.The charlatans that now sit in the House of Commons screeching at each other on our behalf were just coming of age, but few of them were standing where I was. Football and football supporters were a no-go area with high walls of barbed wire arranged around them. We were cordoned off, shepherded by police to a safe area of society where truncheons and slathering dogs, fences and safety netting awaited us. Conditions were medieval and the behaviour they engendered often followed suit.

For Williams, the first black goalkeeper in the top echelons of professional football and talked about at the time as possibly England's first black 'keeper, it must have been a truly harrowing experience. Unlike the other black players in City's squad in the late 70s and early 80s, Clive Wilson, Roger Palmer, Dave and Gary Bennet, Tony Cunningham and Earl Barrett, Williams's job took him as close as possible to the baying hordes behind the fences.

It was a time of darts and golf balls with nails in, bottles and bricks. More or less everything went and, literally, more or less everything went through the air. Bottles of urine from Newcastle fans, clods of police horse excrement from Sheffield Wednesday followers, you never quite knew what was to be launched next. City's days in the second division, after ignominious loss of status against Luton at Maine Road in May 1983, brought them to grounds that were as decrepit as they were venomous. From the terraced wastelands of Carlisle to the dark pit that was Ninian Park, Cardiff, you travelled to support your team in the knowledge that, one way or another,you were in for a dramatic day out.

City too had their governors and young governors, Sergio Tacchini-clad casuals with an eye for fashion and trouble. The air was heavily lacquered with a brutish hostility, which was both invigorating and deeply alarming.

The abuse was vitriolic, whatever your skin colour, for players and away fans alike. Scallies outside the South Bank at Wolves would ask you the time to see if you had a Black Country accent or not. Racism was both casual and widespread. It had not been long since ITV had screened a sitcom named Love Thy Neighbour, where a white bigot living next to a West Indian family routinely called them every deplorable name under the sun for the nation's entertainment and then asked if he could borrow a cup of sugar.

Oh how England laughed at the banal awfulness of it all.

Football's queer vortex of passion and unpredictability, that tribal edge that has made it such an invigorating live watch down the years, also by its very nature brings out sudden bursts of behaviour that we weren't aware we were capable of. The mob, the noise, the feeling of being lost inside a baying wave of like-minded enthusiasts, just as Roy Keane, or Charlie George or Jack Wilshire pulls a funny face metres from where you're ensconced with your Wagonwheel and your bottle of warm Lamot Pils.

Easy to get carried away (sometimes literally if you were in the West Midlands in 1984).

In some ways, then, we have come a long way, but clearly not nearly far enough. Chelsea last weekend was just another stop off point for those who think it ok to use vile language to vent their feelings. While racism is clearly the thin edge of the wedge, the mere fact that people apologise by using the excuse "I meant to say Manc c***" reveals how mainstream gutter language has become, how facile it all seems to offer each other the foulest possible insults without a moment's thought. If we were brought up not to use the f-word in front of our elders, the c-word was an absolute no-go area a couple of decades back. Nowadays, it is used as commonly as hello and goodbye, by men and women, a badge of pride of how far we have evolved as a deep-thinking and profoundly balanced race.

If vile, insulting language comes so easily to us all in these enlightened times, the same stuff with a bit of racism laced into it must seem equally plausible to those whose moral compasses point that bit lower. We can sneer at the press for jumping on a bandwagon they helped give momentum to in the first place. We can point the finger at Liverpool fans and pundits for their wave of abuse when Sterling left their club, but we might all benefit from starting closer to home and get some of our own ideas straightened out first.










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